Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Makes a Play a "Marissa Skudlarek Play"? And Other Thoughts on Personal Branding

In my latest piece for San Francisco Theater Pub's blog, "Branding Upon the Brain," I contemplate the pros and cons of branding yourself as a writer. Is branding a means of identifying and promoting your strengths, or is it a distraction? Does branding yourself mean pigeonholing and caricaturing yourself?

(Does asking all these questions make me sound like Carrie Bradshaw?)

This piece ties in rather well with this marissabidilla post from 2010, "What kind of plays do you write?" Funny: in the older post, I wrote, "Being a young writer, I am fortunate that I can hedge and say 'Well, I feel like I'm still learning, and finding my voice.' But I don't have too many more years in which I can get away with this." How right I was. It's three years later, and I feel like I have passed the point where I can just smile winsomely and say "I think I'm still finding my voice."

After my post went up on the Theater Pub site, I received a very kind and thoughtful Facebook message from a friend who wished to comment on it in a non-public way. While I respect my friend's desire for anonymity, I also really liked what s/he had to say, and I don't want the message to get lost in the depths of Facebook. And when someone tells you something really smart about your own work, I think you have the right to post it on your blog. This is what my friend wrote:
Your work as I know it has a strong brand and a strong feeling to it, from the pregnant lady drinking a beer to the '40s movie star, and it's related not to how you tell your stories (place, time, style) per se, but to what you tell stories about. At least so far, I would say your work is marked by an obsessive exploration of how social expectations prevent selfless connections between people. I see that in almost all your plays: the war between the selfish and the innocent, or maybe between the selfless and the cruel, sometimes between those tendencies within one person, set in a terrain of social/historical confines, looking at how these absurd or arcane social norms are a breeding ground for cruelty and frustration. It doesn't mean you can't try something new and keep growing, but that particular subject matter seems to matter to you in most of your plays, and there's nothing wrong with being pretty sure about what matters to you!
I love it when other people can explain me to myself. Seriously, this is explains so much about my body of work, both its flaws and its virtues. (When writing about "the war between the selfish and the innocent," you have to be careful not to tip over into melodrama, hyperbole, or gratuitous cruelty.) It explains why I am so proud of Pleiades and why feel, somehow, like only I could have written it. It explains why I write so many plays that take place in different eras — the deeper purpose that historical fiction serves for me as a writer. Heck, even the first play I ever wrote, Deus ex Machina, was about greedy, selfish television producers versus an innocent teenage girl, and the absurdities of peer pressure and media influence.

And it's odd, isn't it? I say I don't want to brand myself because I don't want to constrain myself — yet my brand, it seems, is writing about people who feel constrained, and therefore dissatisfied and unhappy.

Also: in my Theater Pub column, I make reference to my participation in the ATLAS Program for Playwrights, a career development initiative. In July, at the ATLAS Playwrights' Showcase, I spoke a little bit about my work and read the first five minutes of my play Beer Theory (which is definitely about "looking at how absurd social norms can breed cruelty and frustration," oh boy). Local actor Don Hardwick attended the showcase and recently wrote it up on his blog. Thanks, Don!

No comments: